Two Sundays ago, I was honored to share another Communion thought with my congregation. Later that week, a woman approached me and asked if I would be willing to lead the prayer at her upcoming event because "you are so good at prayer."
It's not the first time I've heard such a thing, nor the first time I've refused to believe it. I actually laughed out loud when she said it, looked up from what I was doing at the time, tilted my head and said, "Really?"
Yes, really, she said.
You guys, nothing makes me feel more inadequate than praying in public. I don't know if that's just me or if that's a general complaint from those of us who have the burdensome honor of doing so on a regular basis. It's tough! And the truth is that when I pray a group prayer, it's not anything like my personal prayer. It's not even anything like the prayer I'm mumbling to myself in the back of the auditorium before I walk to the front of the auditorium to lead the prayer.
Which isn't to say I'm all that confident of my private offerings, either. It's why I'm writing a book on prayer (not the book on prayer, just a book). It's because I need to know this stuff. It's because, for me, prayer is this beautiful but overlooked discipline of the Christian life. I mean, I read the prayers in the Bible and I want to pray like that. I want to pray the kind of honest, raw prayers that hide nothing from my God. I want to pray the kind of eloquent prayers that make a wretched, wrecked heart seem like the most beautiful offering in all of creation. I want to pray the kind of prayers that God actually answers instead of listening to the platitudes of my culture that say, "God always answers; just sometimes, the answer is no" and "God answers in His own time" and other nonsense like that.
There are a million books on prayer out there and some days, kneeled by my bed, it seems I've read them all and my prayer is still woefully inadequate. (Hmm...I just had a thought on prayer and prayers. Let me make a mental note of that. Ok. Done.) The truth is that most of the books out there don't answer the nagging heart-question I have about prayer, which is, how am I to pray?
I don't want to pray like Jabez. I don't want to pray the heart of David. I don't even want to pray like Jesus because not a one of these guys had my heart. Not a one of these guys had my aching. Not a one of these guys had my relationship with God. I want to know how my heart would pray. Or should pray. Or might pray if I ever just set it free to say to God what it needs to say, whether that's Thank You and I Love You or Life is stupid and You suck. I want to know that it's ok to say whatever I want to say to God even if I'm not so magnificent a poet as David or so bold a man as Isaiah. I want to know that He hears me. I want to know how He hears me.
Hence, the Prayse project, which is about five chapters from drafted (maybe six after that mental note I just made. Mental note. Ok. Done.). It wasn't going to be a book on theology and prayer; it was going to be a satire called "Holy Bajeebus," but in the process of that, all this prayer stuff just hit my heart and I realized that if I want to know how to pray, I need to know how God hears. I need to know how God answers. I need to know how God responds.
Prayse rocks my heart every time I read it. Because these are the answers to the longing of my heart. These are the words on how I am supposed to relate to my God. Not how to pray like Jabez or Jesus or David. Not the right posture or the right prose or the ritual of it all. Not even how to pray like Aidan. Just...how to pray.
And all of those questions hit me every time I'm standing in front of a microphone trying to lead my congregation in prayer. Knowing the honest, authentic prayer I just offered in the back and wondering what it is about being up front that makes me fall into a "Dear Lord, Amen" pattern that grates against my anxious heart. I want more from my Father than a Dear Lord and an Amen and yet, there I am again, praying the same words because....because I don't know. Prayer is so intimate; it's hard to institutionalize it like we so often do. Would you understand if I prayed like I really pray? Would you be able to pray if I was praying as Aidan prays? Would you be offended if I never said "Dear Lord" again? I don't know.
And as much as I plan, to some extent, what I might say about whatever I'm saying about, I never - never - script a prayer. Not ahead of time. I'm just shooting off the cuff, giving what I've got, and letting the track in my mind play, questioning whether it's enough. Although if I'd read my own book, I'd know that it would be.
So there I was with another woman telling me how good I am at prayer, and there I was laughing out loud. "You want to know the truth?" I asked her, then continued without waiting for a response. "I feel like I just get up there and start with what I've got and then I run out of words and tack on an 'amen.'"
It's not the scripted, polished prose I'm used to offering. It's just...what it is.
She smiled and said no, not at all. It sounds good when it comes out, and she really appreciates my prayer.
I hope God does, too. I have to trust that He does.
Because I may always feel inadequate offering one.
At least there's always amen.